August 18, 2017

Coffee Part 1: How Your Cup Affects the Environment

Victoria Brown

Victoria Brown

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

In a quiet corner store off a busy intersection in Arusha, Tanzania, I chose a vibrant cloth package of coffee. On a side street in Rome, I picked up a small, compressed foil packet labeled “Fantasia” off a candy shop shelf. In a kafehaus in Denmark, an attendant in an old-fashioned apron and puffy sleeves ground aromatic beans into a lime green plastic sachet before sliding it over the counter with deft movements. All around the world, coffee is roasted, purchased and consumed constantly. In fact, 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually. That’s 1.1 billion cups daily!

With coffee’s high rate of consumption—and production—worldwide, it is important to consider its environmental and ethical implications. Over the next three articles, I’ll explore some aspects of coffee production, processing and consumption that affect our lives, our communities and our future. Here, I’ll look at some of the environmental impacts as well as what the common certification known as Fair Trade means for the environment. Next up will be ethical issues and then a look at environmental and ethical responsibility from one of the most popular coffee chains in the world: Starbucks.

First, a short history. Coffee originated in Ethiopia and for centuries, the secret of coffee production remained in Africa and the Middle East. But after Dutch spies smuggled coffee seedlings out of the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s, coffee production spread to Latin America and Asia. By 2014 over 10.4 million hectares of land worldwide were used to grow coffee.

The increasing demand for coffee has changed how it is grown. Coffee growing has traditionally been a diverse, intercropped system where an outstanding variety of plant and animal life coexist. For example, in Tanzania, coffee is intercropped with banana grasses to provide shade. Of those 10.4 million hectares, however, the majority is now grown in monocultural, low-shade environments. While exposure to more sunlight increases yields, this method has a number of ecologically destructive features [1][2][3]. Sun cultivation removes all other species to provide unmitigated access to sunlight and easier harvesting. Like all monocultures, sun cultivation contributes to deforestation, erosion, increased blights and pests, and it causes many other serious environmental problems[1][2][3][4]. Additionally, migratory birds, which traditionally use diverse coffee plantations as resting places during their semiannual migrations, are left without forested spots to rest along their journey, leading to over-exhaustion. Another environmental concern with coffee is water use. Coffee growing and production requires immense quantities of water. A recent study estimated that it requires 140 liters of water to grow, process, and prepare a single cup of coffee.

Determining which bag of coffee will make the most sustainable cup can be difficult. Let’s take a look at the environmental aspects of one of the most common humane-product labels, Fair Trade. Springing from a consumer movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Fair Trade products focus on ensuring fair labor practices and wages for producers. Fair Trade principles also include reducing energy consumption, purchasing locally, minimizing waste and making the smallest impact on the environment as possible. Before receiving a Fair Trade certification producers must meet specific environmental standards including cutting out specific pesticides and ensuring proper use of remaining chemicals. Farmers are encouraged to go organic, and 55% of Fair Trade producers also hold organic certifications. The Fair Trade Foundation also offers training for farmers in climate change adaptation.

Now that we’ve looked briefly at the production side of coffee, let’s explore the environmental impacts of coffee brewing and consumption. Homes across the US (and in many break rooms here at the Bloomberg School) have Keurig machines offering easy, single-serve coffee and teas for quick consumption. In fact, one in three American households owns a Keurig and sales of pod-machines have increased 600% since 2008. Despite, or perhaps because of, their convenience, Keurig single-serving pods produce a substantial amount of waste. A pod machine creates 10 times the amount of solid waste as a drip coffee maker. In 2014, the number of K-Cups discarded was enough to wrap around the Earth more than 10 times. While Keurig released a statement declaring they would make all their K-Cups recyclable by 2020, we have yet to see progress on this promise.

The current market ethos of low-cost, high-quantity production leads to overproduction and exploitation of natural resources. In coffee production, this exploitation looks like sun-grown monoculture, high water use and wasteful packaging. As climate change threatens coffee production and our planet as a whole, rethinking what’s in your cup and how it came to be can help preserve the environment for future coffee production and many other vital uses. Check back next Friday for the next installment in the coffee series.

Image: Max Pixel.


  1. Posted by Denis Twinamatsiko

    Indeed, something has to be done to ensure sustainable production of this important crop is accelerated. Sustainable labels like Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are playing a big role to this regard but majority of smallholder coffee farmers here in Africa do find it difficult to get certified due to high certification costs. I have decided to launch a social enterprise called Now Africa Initiative Company Limited, that will be focusing on smallholder coffee farmers to enable them adopt sustainable agriculture practices so as to ensure sustainability and also improve their earnings. All in all, this is a great article and thanks for sharing!

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  6. Posted by Gary B Bowser

    Victoria, very informative. I’m not sure if you have followed up with the effect of coffee addiction and our need for immediate satisfaction. AKA – drive thru’s and their effect on the environment.

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